The Farce Of An Ideologically Neutral Curriculum

Christopher Pyne has done irreparable damage to the national curriculum project.

This is fantastic.

The damage hasn’t occurred because there’s anything wrong with appointing Kevin Donnelly and Professor of Public Administration Ken Wiltshire to review it.

No, it’s because the supporters of the national curriculum can no longer pretend that imposing a uniform curriculum on every single student in the country isn’t an ideological undertaking.

Donnelly is a conservative and in his work as a political commentator, he has made no attempt to obscure his conservative views. Not least on the Drum.

Conservatives are such strange and alien creatures that the appointment has turned outrage up to 11. The teachers’ union described it as the “politicisation” of education. Bill Shorten implored Tony Abbott to “please keep your hands off the school books of Australian children”.

And one of the authors of the history curriculum, Tony Taylor, complained that with the Donnelly and Wiltshire appointment, “we can look forward to 20 years of tedious culture wars in the classroom”.

But if there is a ‘culture war’, it wasn’t the right that started it. The national curriculum is already deeply ideological.

That ought not be a controversial claim. The curriculum is explicit, open, and unabashed about its ideological content. It’s not buried or implied. It’s as bold as a billboard.

The curriculum nominates three great themes (that is, three ‘cross-curriculum priorities’) which are to dominate and define Australian education for the next few decades: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Sustainability.

All worthy topics, of course. How are they ideological? Take sustainability. The sustainability theme is intended to “[create] a more ecologically and socially just world through informed action”. That’s virtually the definition of ideology: a positive description (we are harming the planet) combined with a normative ideal of a better social order (an ecologically and socially just world).

If this isn’t clear enough, well, one of its ‘organising ideas’ is the sustainability ‘world view’: “value diversity and social justice are essential for achieving sustainability”.

Perhaps this is an ideology you agree with. Ideology isn’t a bad thing. Everybody’s thought is shaped by ideology, whether they’re aware of it or not. But it’s ideology nonetheless.

So it is bizarre to object, as Julia Gillard did on Friday, that the ideological direction of the curriculum was not dictated by the Prime Ministers’ Office. Are we supposed to feel better that a group of independent (read: unelected) education specialists (Kevin Donnelly calls them “educrats”) determined the future philosophical underpinnings of our compulsory education system?

(That rule by unelected experts is supposed to be more legitimate and morally superior to rule by elected representatives just shows how anti-democratic our era really is.)

A curriculum is always going to be ideological, in the basic sense that an ideology is a lens through which we make sense of the world.

Alan Reid summarises one view of a national curriculum as “the major means by which the citizenry, collectively and individually, can develop the capabilities to play a part in the democratic project of nation-(re)building.”

An ideologically neutral curriculum is a contradiction in terms.

So at best the national curriculum faces a sad future of continuous rewriting at every change of government. Politics is about competing world views, after all. In the words of Christopher Pyne, “I don’t think the national curriculum is a static document.”

Luckily, in a liberal democracy, we have a way to bypass fundamental disagreements about world views – decentralisation.

There is, simply, no good reason to have a national curriculum.

The first moves towards federal government involvement in the curriculum were initiated, hesitantly, by Malcolm Fraser as John Gorton’s education minister, who complained that there were “unnecessary differences in what is taught in the various states”.

Since then a national curriculum has been a persistent goal of the Commonwealth education department and the small world of education academics.

The intellectual case for a national curriculum, developed over half a century, has involved a lot of theorising about democracy and nation-building and civic virtues.

But now the defenders of the curriculum are trying to pretend these great philosophical goals never existed – that their curriculum is a pragmatic, neutral, unambitious thing.

The utilitarian case for Commonwealth curriculum control has always been absurdly weak. It rests on the desire for “consistency” for the tiny proportion – less than 3 per cent – of students that move interstate during their schooling.

At the very least, the curriculum should be handed back to the states. It is not a project worth pursuing.

But better yet would be a system of multiple, competing curriculums which schools and parents can choose from, according to their own values, tastes, preferences, and philosophies of education. This is not as far-fetched as it seems. Australian schools already offer the International Baccalaureate, Montessori, and Steiner curriculums.

When a population’s values conflict, we should look for solutions in political economy.

Don’t want Christopher Pyne deciding what your children are taught? Perhaps a curriculum imposed by the Commonwealth Department of Education is not for you.

Devolving curriculum decisions down to the school level ought to satisfy both critics of Kevin Donnelly and critics of the curriculum as it stands. And it would instantaneously end the culture war that everybody seems so worried about.

The national curriculum is a high ground. It was designed to be that way. Bulldoze the high ground, end the war.